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The Fact That Changed Everything: Bob Bates and Inner-City Arts

For Bates, students are not just a set of standardized testing scores to be monitored. Each child has a heart and mind with unlimited potential.

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At 40, arts teacher Bob Bates was still unsure what to do with his life. The artistic director for Para Los Ninos, a Los Angeles non-profit that caters to at-risk youth, Bates took to meditation to find clarity.

While meditating in his downtown Los Angeles loft, he finally found his calling. “In the silence, I heard a man’s voice say very quietly, ‘Get an art space for kids,’” recalls Bates, “I thought at the time I couldn’t do it. Then I thought, wait a second what if this is really from God—from the Universe—who am I to go against that?”

That voice seemed to finally address years of Bates’ frustration about arts in schools. To Bates’ consternation, in the 1980s, public schools slashed much of their arts education budgets. Sadly, the bleeding hasn’t stopped yet: 29 percent of all California schools offer no study in any form of art at all.

A source or deep frustration, Bates struggled with how to accept the fact that many educators had turned their backs on teaching the arts. “The things we’re doing in our culture right now are not working. We’re not creating an environment that encourages creativity and growth. It’s rote memory learning, stuff like that. If you don’t give kids something that catches their passion, then how are they going to ever get interested in anything?” asks Bates, whose soft-spoken manner nevertheless conveys steely determination.

It was not until 1989 that Bates would realize his vision. Partnering with real estate developer Irwin Jaeger, the pair started Inner-City Arts, an immersive art education program that caters to high-risk youth in Los Angeles’s gritty Skid Row neighborhood.

At first, it was just Bates and Jaeger working behind the scenes. Inner-City Arts worked with just 60 kids and focused solely on visual arts, lacking funding to do more.

“Irv was the only provider of funding and I taught all the classes. It quickly became more than I could handle so Irv hired another artist, then another artist, then a bookkeeper. Little by little, we grew and grew.”

Today, Inner-City Arts sees between 300 to 450 children a day, five days a week. It has also expanded its programming to include ceramics, theater, dance and animation, taught by practicing professionals, from full-time artists to Disney "Imagineers."

About 10,000 K-12 students from some of the county’s most disadvantaged families pass through the nonprofit’s award-winning one-acre oasis.

Inner-City Arts doesn’t just win high marks with parents struggling to provide their children with better futures, it has also proven its mettle to the education community. A recent study conducted by the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies showed that when students study the arts, they also improve dramatically on math, reading and language. Children who participate actively in the program demonstrated an 18 percent increase in reading scores, 8 percent increase in English proficiency and 25 percent increase in mathematics.

For Bates, these numbers are important but aren’t anything compared to the satisfaction of opening young minds to bigger, better possibilities. “It’s all about getting young people to believe in themselves. To really track and follow their hearts and to use their minds as a tool to increase their ability to learn, grow and develop to the best of their abilities.”

Now 72, Bates continues to teach classes at Inner-City Arts, biking to work from his Montecito Heights home every day. As he walks the nonprofit’s white halls accented with the children’s colorful creations, he stops to greet young students by name every few minutes.

He reminds us, “You never know where the next genius is going to come along who will transform the world. We have the responsibility to all the students, all children. We take that really seriously. These kids maybe economically challenged, but they have minds, hearts, and potential that’s really unlimited.”

For Bates, the students are not just a set of standardized testing scores to be monitored. They are the bright lights seeking a place to shine.

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